SAO PAULO — The Brazilian league starts this weekend with defending champion Fluminense trying to win its third title in four years.
But the club led by Deco and Fred won't have an easy time repeating as champion, as it will be going against teams filled with stars that include Ronaldinho, Luis Fabiano, Alexandre Pato and Clarence Seedorf.
Brazil sensation Neymar may be on his way to Europe and might not get to play much, but the tournament that begins Saturday will include international players such as young Spaniard Fran Merida, American Freddy Adu, Peruvian Paolo Guerrero and Uruguayan Diego Forlan.
Palmeiras, the club with the most national titles, won't be in Fluminense's way this time after being relegated last year.
Fluminense will debut against Atletico Paranaense on Sunday, but it won't be able to count of former Chelsea and Portugal playmaker Deco, who was temporarily suspended for testing positive for a banned diuretic in a doping test earlier this year. Deco claims he is innocent, saying the result stemmed from contaminated vitamins, but he won't be able to play until the trial ends.
But Fluminense will have Fred, who was crucial in leading the team to the title last year. He is going through one of the best moments of his career and is virtually secured as a starter in the Brazilian national team that will play the Confederations Cup in June. Fluminense is the club with most players in that squad. Defender Jean and goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri will also play in the World Cup warm-up tournament.
Fluminense will play Atletico with its second stringers because the starters will be rested for the match against Paraguay's Olimpia in the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores.
"For now we will focus on the Copa Libertadores," coach Abel Braga said. "The Brazilian league is just beginning and it's very long, we have 38 rounds to play that tournament."
Last year's runner-up in the Brazilian league was Atletico Mineiro, touted as the best team in Latin America right now. With Ronaldinho at the helm, Atletico has been dominant in the Copa Libertadores and is set to contend again for the Brazil title, which would be its first since 1971. The team also has World Cup veteran Gilberto Silva and striker Jo in the squad.
Always dangerous is Corinthians, the defending champion in the Copa Libertadores and in the Club World Cup. The team has so much depth that former AC Milan striker Alexandre Pato is not even a starter. Peru striker Guerrero has been getting most of the starts up front for the current Sao Paulo state champion, which also has Brazil midfielder Paulinho and forward Emerson in the squad.
Looking to contend this year is Botafogo, the Rio de Janeiro champion now led by Seedorf, the Dutch midfielder who took the team to another level after arriving last year. Botafogo, the 1968 and 1995 national champion, also has Uruguayan striker Nicolas Lodeiro in the squad.
The greatest Uruguayan star in Brazil is Forlan, who thrived in the 2010 World Cup and will try to lead Internacional to its first national title since 1979. Former Brazil coach Dunga also counts on Argentine midfielder Andres D'Alessandro and Brazil striker Leandro Damiao.
Atletico Paranaense, recently promoted to the top flight, will count on 23-year-old Merida, a member of Spain's youth squads and who previously played for Arsenal and Atletico de Madrid. Atletico rival Coritiba will have Alex, the former Brazil and Fenerbahce playmaker who returned to the country last year.
Adu, who joined Bahia earlier this year, is likely in for a challenge with the two-time Brazilian champion, which has been struggling and could find it difficult to remain in the first division. It was almost relegated last season.
The second tier will have powerhouse Palmeiras, which was demoted after struggling under coach Felipe Scolari during most of 2012. The club won the Brazilian Cup last year but was not able to escape demotion. Palmeiras is the most successful club in the Brazilian league with eight titles, along with Santos.
Santos will be in the highlight match of the first round, facing Flamengo at the new Brasilia stadium, which will host the Confederations Cup opener between Brazil and Japan on June 15.
Sunday's match could be the last for Neymar in Brazil, as Santos continues to negotiate the transfer of the 21-year-old star. Barcelona and other European teams are trying to sign the skillful player.
Follow Tales Azzoni at http://twitter.com/tazzoni